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Balancing Life, Work Requires 6 Key Skills

Being able to balance a professional in the veterinary field and a strong personal and family life take’s a great deal of hard work.

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Is it possible to have it all? Can you really have a full career in veterinary medicine and have a family and a personal life? 

Eight female veterinarians discussed this topic at the Southwest Veterinary Symposium in Dallas. They represented public health, private practice, corporate practice, industry, academia, research and extension veterinary medicine.

Balance-of-life issues dominated the discussion. Can there ever be a balance between family, career and self? The answer is yes and no. Some days or periods are better than others. Life is a journey that continues to evolve and change, and as a result requires different coping skills at each stage.  

Participants said the stages appeared to be divided into five post-education areas: job selection and transition into the working world; marriage/family development; career development; career expansion/modification; and career exit strategy.

As the panelists discussed their histories and experiences, six common themes or skills emerged as necessary to maintain a semblance of balance:

  • Time management.
  • Asking for and accepting help.
  • Delegation.
  • Prioritizing.
  • Following your heart.
  • Releasing the guilt. 

These six areas were utilized by most of the panelists at one time or another. The areas were not mentioned in any order, and many were used in tandem.

  1. Everyone has difficulty with time management on almost a daily or hourly basis. One must answer the question:  What is most important to me now, today? Time management is deciding what things are most important, doing them first and ignoring the rest. 

    This is much easier said than done. 

    Should work or family be more important? Priorities could/should change from day to day. Time management is really life management. To fully utilize time-management skills, think through a list of priorities from both a long-term and short-term basis. What goals do you need to or want to accomplish within five years, and how do your daily goals fit into this? 

    At the beginning of your career, you may focus on work and a little less on yourself. As you gain confidence in your career path, a shift may occur in your priorities. Perhaps it’s time to focus on family or yourself. 

    The ability to manage time wisely is a very valuable skill. The use of a daily or weekly schedule based on priorities will aid this process. Keeping a life calendar—showing work and family together—will help eliminate double scheduling or missing something altogether. 

    We need to focus on the important things and reduce or eliminate time wasters such as surfing the Web, watching TV and day dreaming.
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  2. The second coping skill is identifying and utilizing a support system. This allows you to delegate some things to others with whom you live or work. Many new graduates establish very strong support systems in their workplace. In addition to support at work, the support system at home is very important  and might include parents, significant others, children, brothers, sisters, etc. 

    It often takes both support systems to provide needed help. The most common support person mentioned by the panel was a spouse. Asking for and accepting help allows for more effective time management. Effective time management and utilization of support systems requires delegation.
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  3. Delegation is the third skill needed to help put balance in your life. Most veterinarians find it difficult to delegate, because veterinarians are perfectionists and believe that if we want the job done right, we should do it ourselves. Therefore it is difficult to “let go” and accept or ask for help. 

    Delegation allows increased efficiency at both work and home. Most jobs can be done more efficiently and better when done by someone who wants to help.

    At home, a significant other can be incredibly helpful with seemingly “small stuff” like routine chores and child care. This small stuff is very time- and energy-consuming. In the workplace, delegating to staff can greatly improve patient care, efficiency and income. 

    In most states the practice act requires veterinarians to diagnose, perform surgery and prescribe. Most other clinical tasks can be performed by the qualified veterinary technician. In fact, the more invested your staff is, the happier they are in their work. By learning to delegate, a veterinarian’s life and job can become fun, rewarding and less stressful.

    These steps are necessary for effective delegation: 

    * Selection of the right person to delegate to.
    * Explanation of the task and/or expected end result.
    * Expression of confidence in and commitment from the selected person.
    * Agreement on a deadline.
    * Step away from organization of the task.
    * Progress reports.
    * Reward a job well done.
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  4. The fourth skill important to life balance is to prioritize. A life plan is helpful to allow one to focus on the priority of the moment, day, week, month, life. Deciding what really matters to you is most important. Ask yourself, “If my life could focus on one thing and only one thing, what would it be?” 

    Add a second, third, fourth and fifth thing. This gives you your top five priorities within which goals should fall. Setting priorities allows one to focus on the important tasks and what we need to get there: time management, effective delegation, support.

    Matters of self must have a place at the top of the priority list. If you don’t take care of you—exercise, proper nutrition, sleep, relaxation—you cannot effectively take care of others. Burnout and compassion fatigue can occur in the absence of self-care.
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  5. Following your heart and accepting change as it comes is the fifth important coping skill. The one constant in life seems to be change. As life changes, we change and the people around us change as well. 

    We must be willing to alter our responses to change as it occurs. Sometimes a change in our career or family require us to either accept the change, alter the change, or change the situation. It may be difficult to change some things, but sometimes that is the best answer.  

    Other times it may be best to negotiate something more acceptable to both parties (i.e., family changes). Most importantly we must follow our hearts and do what is best for us and fits within our priorities.

    The art of negotiation is nothing new to veterinarians. We utilize it daily with clients. This same skill can be used effectively, but perhaps differently, at home and in the workplace. 
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  6. The sixth and final balancing skill asks that we accept our best and not feel guilty if our best isn’t perfect. 

    Sometimes things do not go exactly as planned. On occasion we must be willing to accept less than perfection in things done at work and home. This requires us to be flexible and not be so hard on ourselves when we fall a little short. 

    Look back over what you have done right—completing your DVM, helping others, including clients—and don’t lose perspective. Remember what is really important in the long term.

    It is possible to have it all, but perhaps not all at once. Life is an act of juggling. Life is all about trade-offs. 

    If we practice these coping skills during the times we feel out of balance, this will allow for some recovery. The challenge is to obtain some balance with the important priorities in life without expecting balance each and every day within each moment. 

    Important life activities  might include social, spiritual, professional, family, physical, financial, community, mental health and relaxation. 

    Devote your attention to one priority at a time. Protect your private time. Make your choices yourself instead of letting them happen to you. <HOME>

Dr. McCurnin is a professor of veterinary surgery and management at Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Ms. Johnson is an instructor in veterinary medicine at LSU.

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